The Bed Remembers


The Bed Remembers the Goldenbergs

I’ve known Goldenbergs.

I’ve known Goldenbergs for over one hundred years.

The couple from Palestine, they were the first. He was Joe and she Millie. He called her Mil.

Joe was restless, a striver, full of energy and ideas. He was a shouter. Millie would say timidly, I’m not deaf Joe. Later in her life Millie became deaf. Perhaps that was her defense.

They must have been young when they married. Their first son was born in 1910, when Millie was just 21 and Joe slightly younger.

Millie

Was that firstborn conceived on me? I don’t recall. They had me built to order, me, together with a companion dressing table, two bedside tables and a swing mirror. There was a tall wardrobe too. All of us pieces were french-polished and elegant. We were expensive, craftsman built, well beyond the means of young immigrant battlers. In the dim bedroom of that dark house, we would have shone. Our lustre, our sheen would have declared to the world, these Goldenbergs, they’ve arrived.

How could Joe possibly afford us? The only way I can imagine would be a big win at the trots. Joe had trotters, I recall. I heard Joe confide to his first son, Myer, something that made me think. It was only a snatch of conversation, mind. I could be wrong. Joe told his son how he instructed the trainer on the eve of a race in which his trotter was the favourite, ‘not to wear the horse out’. Perhaps Joe planned for his own trotter to lose – against the odds. Perhaps he bet against his own horse and won big. Who knows?  

Joe

In any event, I arrived at that big house at Number 6 Goathlands Street, I and the entire suite. I do recall Joe testing me for structural strength. In case his weight might not have been a severe enough test, Joe lay down together with Millie. That was early summer, I remember. In August the second baby, Abraham, arrived. Everyone loved Abe. Of the three Goldenberg sons, I knew Abe best because he never really left home. I mean long after he grew up and married Clara, he came back to that house, every day, to see his parents. I suspect he came back to bring some comfort to his mother, some softness. Joe was out in the world, Millie at home. Joe would come back home, full of the tensions of the day, he’d shout at Millie. Sometimes I’d hear her cry.

But they weren’t always like that. They had their better times, particularly on a Friday night. Those happier times bore fruit. The third son, Phil, was the last fruit of Millie and Joe. I know: I was there at his conception.

As Millie and Joe aged and as the boys grew up and left home, the big house at Number Six became quieter. The big bedroom where I’d reigned took on the air of a secret place, not frequented at daytime. Grandchildren arrived and explored and penetrated the gloom. Chirping as they approached, they’d enter and fall silent and sneak away. Perhaps Joe had roared at them. I don’t know, I couldn’t say. I do remember Myer’s second son entering one day. He opened the door, peered around and tiptoed into the room. Shafts of sunlight penetrated the gloom, heightening somehow the darkness of the wood, the sense of dusk at noon. He stopped, that skinny little kid, struck by the atmosphere. Was it the unnatural dark that frightened him? Or was it fear of his grandfather? I don’t know. Within seconds he was gone and we of the bedroom suite were alone with our secrets.

Years passed, decades. The three sons married and moved out.  Late one night the telephone rang. The telephone was a daylight instrument in those days. A call at night was alarming. Joe answered: Hello! Hello! No! No… I’ll tell Millie.

I don’t know what Joe told his wife. I heard her wailing, saying repeatedly, I wanted to go before her, I should have gone first…

The big house watched Millie and Joe pass into old age. Joe smoked his daily sixty cigarettes and bloomed, while Millie withered from the inside. I thought at the time she was too timid to thrive. Perhaps she was too intimidated to live. Doctors said later that Millie died because her APC tablets destroyed her kidneys. But that amounts to the same thing; Millie needed all those painkillers for the headaches that life caused.

One day the empty old house filled with people. Some arrived early in the morning, big men, hairy, some with black beards, some grey, some white. Lots of sidelocks, big black hats. Joe and the boys – Myer and Abe and Phil – sat on low chairs every morning for about a week. I heard the beards chanting in a language that wasn’t English. Millie was not there. In the afternoon and in the evening the house filled to overflowing, the beards, women in another room, men whom the boys went to school with, even to kindergarten, faces from the early days, the days when Joe and Millie and her large family all lived in North Carlton. Days of richness without money, Abe said.

So many people, I heard crying, laughing, every day for a week. Then they all went home. The house was empty. Joe never slept on me again. He moved to the single bedroom, down the hall. I’d hear him crying in the night.

Then Myer’s second son started coming, Thursdays I think it was. He’d arrive after school and he’d stay the night. They’d sit in front of the TV, the old man and the boy, just the two of them. They watched until the close of transmission, around 10.30. The boy would go upstairs then ‘to study’ he said. And Joe would shuffle around, delaying his own bedtime.


It was good to feel life stirring, hear voices echoing in those dark rooms. I heard him tell the boy how he left school in the third grade to help support the family. We were poor in the old country. When there wasn’t enough food, my father’s new wife would feed her children first. The rest of us would go hungry. I went to work in the Turkish Post Office. The postmaster trusted me. One night I came home with the key to the Post Office. I wore only shorts. The key was big and heavy, made of bronze. I tucked it into my shorts but you could still see it. My father saw it and felt terrified. If anything went missing at the Post Office I’d be blamed and Father would pay. He sent me back with the key. He never let me go back. That’s when I started my own business. I became a watermelon seller. I sold melons to fishermen. I’d swim out into the sea, floating melons before me. Other boys did the same, but I made sure I swam out furthest. I’d be the first melon boy the fishermen would see as they sailed back to Jaffa at the end of the day. I knew they’d be thirsty and they’d pay.

Joe would lament to the boy about Millie. He’d recall old times, their younger days together, Millie’s beauty and allure. She had full, firm breasts…This left the boy lost for a response. I imagine he blushed.

Joe was liberal with his criticisms. He’d tell the boy, It’s a good thing your father is a doctor. He’d be useless at anything else…Then, He’s your father, I shouldn’t criticise him…but he’s my son so I have the right! He’s got no head for business…

There came a morning without words, without any sound or movement. Later there was the sound of a key in the lock. I heard Abe’s voice, Father! Father! There was no answer. I heard fast movements, doors opening, slamming, then Abe’s voice, Father! Father! Speak to me! Joe’s voice never replied. Not long after Myer’s voice spoke: He’s had a stroke, Abe. I’ll call an ambulance.

Silence followed. Nothing was heard for six weeks, then the house filled. I heard voices in all accents, old people, young, children. Crying, praying, chanting, laughing, people talking over each other, people from many places, from many times.  People came and came. The front door never closed from early morning to after dark. Then after seven days silence fell.

I left the old house in a van. Together with the stately swing mirror, the bedside tables, the big, big wardrobe and the dressing table, I was taken to the small flat where Myer’s second son lived with his new wife. I was sixty years in the house of Millie and Joe Goldenberg. 

Now begins my the next family era. There’s a new Goldenberg couple. I’ll spend the next half century under Annette and Howard. I’ll tell you some of their secrets presently…

The Miner


 

He’s a tall man, slim. He wears clothing of dark gray. When he gives his surname, I nominatecorrectly his country of origin in Northern Europe. It’s only after we’ve parted that it occurs to me his name translates to Big Son. He might well descendfrom a line of big sons.

Even though he’s past retirement age, I ask him what he does for a living. Out here the farmers and the miners never quite give it up. I’m a miner, he says – a shrug, a wry smile. The lure of the big find is too strong for some to stop.

– Where do you live?

– Out along the Seven Mile. I’ll take you and show you if you like. You can see the diggings.

– OK, I have your address. I’ll drive out.

– You can’t. You’ll get lost.

This rings true. The town is peopled by those who don’t wish to be found, persons escaping the Lawor vendetta or drug dealers or the tax man or the former spouse, or a life of persecution in the old country. Nobody really knows the population. The town boasts fifty-four ethnic groups. As you drive into town a sign welcomes the visitor. A little further on a sign reads: “POPULATION ?”

The 2016 census lists 2016 persons, a neat match, probably too neat. No one really knows. It’s though a further 3000-odd are hidden away in the hills, where they live in disused trams or railway carriages, huts and caves. In the past, the local Police designated a discrete patch of earth behind the shopping strip where scamps and scally wags were allowed to park when they came into town for supplies. Certain back roads were allotted to these folk. The Police would ask no questions so long as the miners did not bring themselves to their attention.

Big Son instructs me to meet him outside the front of the clinic after I finish work: you can follow me out along the Seven Mile. At 5.00 precisely I step out into bright sunshine where Big Son looks at my white hire car and says, Get into my vehicle. Yours is too pretty to take out bush. I jump in to a large, hard-working 4-wheel drive and we drive out of town.

The further we drive the thicker the marks of the digger. Low structures of tin and timber alternate with mullock heaps of pale stone and earth and random bit of rusted machinery. We’ve left the bitumen behind us, dirt tracks branch off and wind off in all directions into thin scrub. I’ve lost my bearings. My companion keeps up a commentary: that claim there belongs to a friend…over here you can see cabins…the people over on the right run a really good tourist operation.

Before I came to this country I moved to Roma – I had a girlfriend there, the usual story, you know – in Roma I set up a photographic studio.

Photography was my trade. 

The narrating voice has taken on a note of pride.

I didn’t speak the language, but I taught myself by watching videos in Italian. I succeeded as a linguist but I struggled in my photography business. No network.

I visited Australia – curiosity, you know?  Back in Roma I applied for a visa to settle in Australia. It was for adventure. I came out here and started to dig. I married once, had a couple of daughters. The marriage ended. Married again, my wife is an artist, an art teacher. We fostered a little child. He was murdered. My wife went mad. I sold up, sold all this – by now we’re at his claim and we’ve pulled up – I had to sell and take her to the city for treatment…

The young bloke who lived over the hill there, a loner, a misfit, killed the little one. He lived there, a recluse, a neighbour. No one knew anything about him until he committed murder. Of a child.

CARRIAGE HOME

My wife got better and we came back. I got a new claim just by my old one. This is it. ‘This’ is a patch of elevated stony ground with holes in it. Disparate bits of metalwork rise above the surface and disappear below. I peer down a hole walled by a cylinder of galvanised iron. The hole is a mine, about one and a half metres in diameter. My host says, it goes down eighteen metres. I consider the dark and the deep. Obviously you don’t suffer claustrophobia…

I do, to a degree. I think anyone with imagination must.

Spiral staircase for a mine

Bright blue steel steps disappear into the depth of another circular hole. Big Son says, a friend invented that spiral staircase. The friend sells them to diggers and small miners across the country. This machine here he points to a steel contraption – I built. I invented it and patented it. I’ve sold a few of them, but most diggers can’t afford $18,000…

The digging machine invention

The machine that my host devised is a complicated structure of thick steel, encasing steel cables, an electric motor and meters with dials and numbers. It stands, grey, substantial and sophisticated on the primal earth. There’s not a speck of rust. It’s a machine for digging a mine. I gaze at the device in awe. Inventor and invention alike stand solid and impressive, gunmetal grey, erect in the unforgiving sun.

Who trained you in engineering?

No one. I always liked machines, devices, gadgets. I pulled things apart, curious you know?

What does a digger do who can’t afford a mechanical digger? Pick and shovel?

Yes. If they can’t scavenge bits of old machinery. Maybe fix it up, get it working.

I consider pick and shovel work in the digital age. Out here summer temperatures reach fifty in the shade and stay there for days. But I do know why a digger might stick at it. On the way out of town Big Son pointed out a jewellery showroom: Very honest people there, prices very reasonable. They’ve got a gem there that I dug up, very valuable. They paid ten thousand for it. They’ll sell it for forty thousand, but they might have to hold it for years.

Another person, obese, not old, walking on a stick, hobbled and rolled picturesquely into the clinic this morning. Both her florid gait and her words told a story that stretched the truth in support of her quest for a medical certificate for welfare benefits.

We moved onto other subjects. 

What’s your work – when you’re able to do it?

I’m a miner, she said. I’ve got forty thousand worth of raw gems in this bag. 

In this town that outlandish statement might just be simple truth.

Here, gemstone is currency that doesn’t leave records. Bankers, accountants, the taxman need not know.

My tall host looks around his claim. He says, There’s always theft. You can’t make your property safe from thieves.

I ask, Do people arm themselves?

Some do, they have guns… shootings aren’t rare out here.

This here is my blower – Big Son points to a large hollow, elevated structure of steel and rust, that rises above the claim, shaped like one of those concrete mixers you see on trucks at building sites. This towers above us. It does something with mullock that I don’t really understand, but it sounds like winnowing. My host tries to explain: You see that motor there? I found it in a derelict street sweeper. It’s a three-cylinder diesel. I adapted it. It’s noisy. The miner turns a switch. A battery turns the motor over, it fires then clamour, brutal and immediate, drowns conversation. The thick steel platform vibrates beneath our feet. 

Come this way, into the house. Twenty metres from the claim, just down a small slope and hidden from sight at the claim, stands an elegant modern building of steel and timber. Yes, this too was designed and built by my host. It stands on leasehold land. The house lease is separate from the mine lease: You get a home lease for twenty-five years. You renew it every twenty-five years.

We pause at the threshold. Big son points: these stones everywhere, that’s gemstone waste, that’s potch. My host leans a long way down and picks up a pebble. Here take this, a little souvenir. I look at the little grey pebble. Its centre glows with blue and green fire.

Inside, all is dark. A woman of middle age materialises and speaks in a florid French accent.

We stand in the dark room until electric light reveals walls hung with artworks in oils that startle with their mute emotional power. The artist steps from the shadow and speaks with shy pride about the paintings.

– You see that brown shading? Do you know what I use for pigment? 

I regard the glowing brown and shake my head.

– Coffee. Nescafe. I’ve tried other instant coffee. Nescafe gives that fire in the brown.

We come to a bathroom whose walls are a menagerie of megafauna: emu, koala, kangaroo, in their greys and browns move across bright panels of white and lime. My hostess explains: We sit on the toilet and instead of blank walls, we gaze at animals, bounding across the walls, alive.

We pass a small portrait, the only watercolour. The painter passes it by. Big Son pauses. We regard a bright portrait of a little boy with a face full of life andwild, straw-coloured hair. He radiates light. Big Son says quietly, this is our little one.

Deploring


Deploring has long been a favourite sport of mine.

Bankers, paedophiles, turners of blind eyes have all earned my opprobrium. I’ve deplored racists and people who speak or act violently, and in common with many others, I’ve greatly enjoyed deploring politicians. I’ve deplored climate change deniers and I’ve deplored people who criminalise asylum seekers. A good deplore always left me feeling righteous. As my wife points out I’m particularly good at seeing myself as righteous.

In recent times deploring has lost some of its gloss. It’s become like tenesmus, which is the medical term for the condition of dissatisfied defaecation. The instinct is blameless, the urge is strong, but the act feels somehow incomplete.

Hillary deplored deplorables to her cost. It turns out the deplorable are not few and they live next door or across the street, or among your friends.  

Covid has seen an outbreak of deplorables and of deploration, both in epidemic proportion. Anti-vaxxers, rioters who confront police, those who piss on the Shrine and expose the many to the risk of contagion; attenders (not attendees – no-one forced them to attend) at an illicit engagement party, worshippers at a proscribed religious service likewise incur my white-hot rage.

But my rage no longer satisfies. Why? Firstly, I have to distinguish between the act which I deplore and the actor. Further, I need to recognise that the deplorables are people, and what’s more they are people in the plural. They are my fellow citizens, these hundred who congregate to pray, thesethousands who block streets and provoke police officers. I can’t help wondering who these people are and reflecting on the honest thoughts and the genuine fears that prompt many of them to act in these harmful or misguided ways.

In my work I meet plenty who declare their certainty of conspiracy (big pharma, the government, George Soros – which means – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – the Jews). Others teach me the science; this week a seventeen-year old girl told me, ‘I know Pfizer impairs female fertility. I know I want to have children but I want to be safe from Covid too.’ (I told her I too had heard that report, but only here in Lightning Ridge, where I’m presently working, had I heard it. The remainder of female humanity doesn’t know what this child knew – and now unknows.) How can I deplore her for the primal fear of childlessness? What profit is there in contradicting those convictions that are religious in their depth?

The common theme among my patients is fear. It’s honest, sincere fear, invariably magnified and feeding on itself and its cesspool of ‘information’. How can we help frightened people by name-calling?

I have no respect for those people who decline vaccination and cry Apartheid! Their thinking is sloppy and they enjoy playing the victim. Less innocent too are those who behave lawlessly. But with the exceptions of the clearly malevolent minority (I include here members of bikie gangs, violent anarchists, Nazis earnestly working towards overturning democracy and restoring Whitest Australia), no-one gets up in the morning and asks, How can I do the most harm today? What is the most foolish trending opinion I can embrace?

Rather I see people who embrace such folly as attracted to the ‘glamour’ of free thinking, the ‘heroism’ of rebellion, the ‘courage’ of free speech. They evoke in me feelings that range from compassion (in my consulting room) to outright condescension (like the people of biblical Ninivehthey know not their right hand from their left).

But we are divided. We do discriminate between the vaccine-willing and the others. We grant freedoms to some and deny them to others. I can see no other choice, but I can see no long-term future in this discrimination. There is a limit to people’s acceptance of curtailment of their liberties. The fabric of community is only as strong as our leaders’ capacity to inspire.

Where are the inspiring leaders? They do exist. At the outset of the pandemic I held great fears for the most vulnerable communities in Australia. Even more than residents in Aged Care, I feared for outback indigenous communities. People who obeyed an ancient cultural imperative to wander through ancestral lands would surely catch and succumb to the virus, as they did in early colonial times to smallpox. But this did not eventuate. The traditional leaders, elders, listened to respectful advice that was appropriately conveyed. They became convinced and they carried conviction with their people. People listened, followed and were safe.

My friend Colin begs to differ. I’m pleased to oblige:

Howard. G’day and thank you for sharing.

To “deplore” is surely the most respectful way to demonstrate that one differs from another’s point of view.

 

Deplore – to express or feel deep grief in regard to.

 

In certain quarters this word came to be reviled after it was used to register dismay at public political rallies. The rallies became places where lies, insults, routine mocking of opponents and outrageous motivation of crowds chanting “lock her up” in respect of a political opponent who 5 years later has not been charged with anything. There was no crime.  This from a man who now has 16 Civil legal cases underway against him and a further 16 Criminal cases underway. A man who has instigated or influenced 60 appeals against an election result, all of the appeals dismissed, sometimes with a Judge’s comment, “don’t waste the court’s time, there is no evidence”. 

 

History teaches us such “leadership” emboldens ill informed and bigoted people to behave inhumanely. Seeing ill informed led astray, firstly to chant insults and later to attack the seat of Government leaves me weary, bewildered, numbstruck and sighing with grief. Politicising a virus is a masterstroke of machiavellianism.

 

It’s deplorable.

If we see a small child randomly pull blooms off flowers, or hurt a small brother, or for good measure swing the cat about by its tail and then tell lies, we rightly deplore it. And try to correct it. If in the process “our rage no longer satisfies” maybe it’s because we think our voice no longer counts and have given way to misinformation or that no one is listening. There are voices the misguided listen to. They are not by any stretch “reflecting on honest thoughts”. Rather they reflect on dishonesty of a spectacular nature. If these thoughts and actions are “religious in their depth” this is called heresy, not that I’d suggest burning at the stake. But failure to act in a firm manner gives leeway for deplorable behavior such as pissing on a shrine.  

Relying on people getting the correct message via the frightful spectacle of seeing grandma, a friend, neighbour or workmate suffocate to death with covid is not enough. Mandating compliance saves any argument(s). 

No jab, no footy. 

No jab, no coffee.

No jab, no Bali. 

No jab, no work. 

 

Doing so doesn’t mean “we grant freedoms to some and deny to others”. It’s not unlike the freedom to drive a car once learned and tested. And when that’s achieved other layers are added, such as wear a seat belt, don’t speed, and for heaven’s sake get off your phone while driving at 60kph and if you’re 15m aloft fixing the tiles put up a safety harness. Please. For a variety of reasons, one being it’s cheaper for society to do that than pay for a lifetime of care for a paralysed worker. This is not “discrimination” but boundaries for the greater good.

What Does it All Mean? – V The Final Act

‘TRIGGER WARNING’

The following post may distress some readers. Before reading, please ensure you have any supports you might need.

This hurts the most. 

If only, if only…

It happens and it hurts and the hurt can’t be helped; it can’t be talked away; it can’t be redeemed.

And when you lose the next one in this way, it finds you again unprepared, defenceless, bewildered.  

When I count those lost to me by their own hand, I find the tally low: three, three in over fifty years. These three, and two more who tried and who fell, falling, astonished into my outstretched arms.

The wound is not to my pride. The wound goes deeper. Petty pride stings at slights, but this is not slight. This one trusted me, that one looked to me, they stood before me in their naked grief and I tried to clothe them in my regard: You matter. Your life has value. Your unique being has meaning. 

I have been talking, I discover, to those who are beyond hearing. My words vibrate and pass, and unclothed and alone, the three take their leave. 

The first died for beauty. Believing herself dysphorically to be disfigured, she could not see the beauty all others could see in the photos her despairing husband took and showed her. Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes. She takes her leave, she takes her life. Her husband cannot take my calls.

The second died for lovelessness. Born a late child into a family already too full of children, born whole into a constellation deformed by the severe deformity of an elder brother, this one was never deemed to have needs. He called out for notice: Mum, I’ll be good! Mum, I topped the class! Dad, I was best and fairest! Mum, Dad they made me School Captain! Mum… Dad…

They never noticed. All their time, all their energy they spent on the other one, the one who couldn’t run, who would never read. Mum and Dad had no love to waste. The unloved one made himself lovable. I never met a more winning man. I noticed him, I regarded him. He won me. But mine was not the love he lacked.

Being lovable, being good, being the one who’d always try the hardest, he tried all I suggested; he took the medication, and the next medication. He accepted the referral to a psychiatrist, he engaged with the therapist, he accepted admission to hospital. He convinced the specialist he was recovering. He left hospital and he kept his appointment with me. He spoke to me in warm appreciation. He took his leave and, leaving me in false assurance, he took his life.

Twenty years pass and still I shake my head in bewilderment. So vital his being, so warm his blood, so much greater than both, his pain.

Of the last I write least. Two years on it remains too raw. Another who died for beauty. Ugly only in her own eyes, ‘unworthy’ of the lavished love of her parents. Unable to bear the hope with which I’d inoculate her, she separated herself from me in her final months. She died by her own hand. She died alone.

My feelings are not of guilt. Not being family to any of the three, I feel none of the woundof kin, none of that stab of accusation or anger. I cared for all three. They took from their scant stores of trust and they invested in me. I tried my best. It was not enough. We all lost.

What Does it all Mean? – IV

Warm Skin and Broad Shoulders

For my first twenty years in general practice, I worked in partnership with a famous man who happened also to be a great man. I’d heard of him before we met. His name was Donald Cordner, famed as the sole doctor ever to win a Brownlow Medal in Australian football. I learned you win the Brownlow for being the fairest and best player. Those two adjectives epitomise the man.

Donald happened to be, in his time, the tallest player in the League. Together with that height he was broad in proportion. On my first morning with him, Donald performed a tonsillectomy on a child of eight. Disdaining a trolley, he hoisted the patient in his arms and carried her to the Operating Theatre before surgery, then carried her back to the ward afterward. Donald personified two valuable characteristics in a doctor – the personal touch and broad shoulders.

At about five feet and seven inches I could only look up to this very tall man. My initial awe gave way quickly to admiration, for I saw in Donald a quality I’d seen at close quarters through the previous twenty-six years as the son of another GP. That quality was the courage to feel the pain of another, to share it willingly, to shoulder it and to carry on with calm. 

I saw Dad and Donald as they brought life into the world and as, inevitably, they walked closely with others to their final exit. They did this kindly and bravely. Every birth builds us, every death diminishes us. John Donne was right:

Therefore send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

Seated in close consultation with a young mother one morning in the village of Diamond Creek, I was interrupted by the insistent ringing of the telephone: Would I come urgently to the Treatment Room?

For the next thirty minutes Donald and I worked frantically to revive a six-month old baby who hadn’t cried that morning. Her anxious mother found her child inert, unresponsive, not breathing. We tried all we knew but the baby would not breathe. All through this time the mother stood at our side, fully, dreadfully aware. Through it all, the baby felt warm to my touch. That warmth was to haunt me.

I returned to my patient and took up our earlier conversation: Jen, how did you feel when he spoke to you…

My patient cut across me: Howard, you’ve just been attending to something terrible in the other room. You can’t just walk back in here and carry on as if nothing has happened. You have to give yourself some time.

Jen (not her real name) was right. Nobody had ever suggested a doctor too might need care. 

Over the following twenty years the bereaved mother brought her surviving children to Donald and me. We shared our unbearable, unspoken knowledge.

Another young mother, Julie, became my patient around that time. Over the next decade I delivered her babies and looked after her children. I tried to help her when she became depressed following her final childbirth, and again when she came to me for help through her divorce. Julie was a dynamo whose many ailments frequently led to surgery, and few of her numerous operations went smoothly.

Julie saw in me capacities that I could not recognise. When she brought a problem to me she did so with inordinate trust in my powers. Howard would know. That trust must have generated the power she imagined. She demanded I become a better doctor, and her faith or some species of love brought that doctor into being. 

When I left Diamond Creek she followed me to the city, travelling an hour each way to see me for her many incurable conditions. When Julie moved to a  more distant country town the trip to see her trusted doctor took two hours each way. Her ailments were many and her visits not few. She’d seek my counsel in her wilful mother’s decline. She shared the joy of new grandchildren. Her bones began to crumble and she looked to me for guidance about the medication that should strengthen bone, but weren’t there cases where the jaw would abruptly crack?

When aged about sixty, Julie developed intractable abdominal pain. Specialists failed to find the cause and I struggled to relieve her pain. Through all of this Julie looked to me with that unwavering trust.

Belatedly we found the small malignancy that was the cause of Julie’s pain. Cure by surgery was not possible. Supported by her brave husband, Julie endured the full ordeal of chemotherapy. To the end Julie chased a cure: she would not give up her precious life. To the end she trusted her old doctor. I was humbled by her faith.

Julie died.

Over fifty-one years I’ve seen death undo so many. Not all deaths were tragic, some were a release. Inevitably, though, some die in cruel suffering. I remember Robbie (not his name), a tender soul, a deeply spiritual man who’d survived a harsh childhood, and who emerged with a love that overflowed. Robbie and I shared a love of literature. He’d hunt out books he knew I’d enjoy and gift them to me, inscribing every volume with a message full of feeling. To this day I’ll pick up an old postcard, a cherished book suffering neglect, and instantly, Robbie’s handwriting, the curved lettering, bring him back; his love visible in ink.

One day I rode with Robbie as he drove his teenage kids to school. He kissed his daughter as she left the car, then he kissed his blushing son. As I followed, rather than allow me to feel neglected, Robbie kissed me too.

Robbie worked in Student Services at a university, later as a chaplain in ICU at a major hospital. He would see forty percent of his patients die.

Robbie knew his own heart would eventually fail. Numerous surgeons had opened his heart and repaired or replaced valves, not all successfully. Robbie’s cardiologist assured him his passing would be smoothed: he would not suffer. This GP reinforced this advice. Robbie and his devoted wife trusted our words.

When his time came, Robbie exited life in a prolonged and desperate struggle for breath. He died at home with his wife at his side. Years later Robbie’s widow – herself my beloved friend – continues to suffer grief born of betrayal.

In the end that must come, all we doctors can offer our patients is our warm skin and our broad shoulders.